HENRY: A Polish Swimmer’s True Story of Friendship from Auschwitz to America – Katrina Shawver

Recently I was reading a book about the three women from the UK who joined the forces during WWII (review here), the book really sparked my interest to find out more about the people who lived through that era. Henry was exactly the book I was looking for.

In general I much prefer an autobiography and tend to skip biographies as I don’t fully engage with them, but this is different. It is more of a hybrid between the two, Henry telling his story and Katrina undertaking her own journey of understanding.

Henry was living in Poland, competing in swimming events and working hard when he was taken to Auschwitz, classified as a political prisoner Henry experienced a different reality from Jewish arrivals who were often killed before entering the camp. We get to see how Henry survives through both luck and knowing the right people.

We are told the long hard day’s work that was required of the prisoners, many collapsing from exhaustion and dying where they lay. — understanding of the day to day life the prisoners experienced from food, clothing, hospital, jobs, money and post

Henry is transferred to Buchenwald, a completely different type of camp with a slightly easier existence if rules were followed. Personally I had never heard of this camp and it is interesting that from her own visit there Katrina noted the museum has been created with German visitors rather than international visitors in mind.

In some parts, the book is graphic including images but as noted within the book, prisoners couldn’t turn the page and ignore the horror happening so it is important to recognise this. Throughout the book documents are included ranging from maps of the routes taken, post sent between Henry and his mother plus official documents from the camps.

On Katrina’s own journey she visits the sites Henry would have been in years before, trying to understand the real scale of camps and the devastation that happened within. It is clear to see the effects the sites have on her, in some ways I wish Katrina had looked deeper into her own family heritage but I understand how hard it must be.

I was glad we got to see Henry’s life after he was free, I think one of my favourite things in the whole book was the wedding picture of Henry and Nancy. The book was heartbreaking, how one human can be so cruel to another I will never understand.

Thank you to the author for the ARC, it was such a moving read.

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